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on 20 February 2016
It was only recently, after reading and watching books and movies set in the American south that I reconnected with Waterland and realised that it is essentially American gothic set in the damp heart of the East Anglian fens. There is the small community, enclosed by its own watery boundaries and separated from the rest of the country which barely gets a mention, close family (sometimes too close) and customs that are a throwback to times that if not simpler, were certainly less self-conscious. Echoes of Tom Sawyer are definitely here and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Regardless of the connections beween Swift's masterpiece and great American novels, this is a fantastic book completely soaked in the atmosphere of its surroundings and doing for the fens what Hardy did for Wessex and Du Maurier for Cornwall. Reading Waterland is to lose yourself among the eels and reeds of eastern England, and is a book that lingers long in the memory, both for the setting and the story.
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on 10 January 2016
A cleverly constructed narrative in which a middle-aged history teacher who is about to be pensioned off in the early 1960’s, looks back over his life, laying bare before us why he is being pensioned off and much more besides. Including a highly interesting section on the natural history of eels, which the author weaves seamlessly into the narrative. There is much musing on the meaning of history, the importance of history, its cyclical nature and how often it is ignored at individual and even whole nation’s peril. If you like history you will definitely like this novel.

The majority of the story is set in the Fenlands of East Anglia where Tom the to be history teacher was born and bred, only leaving it to fight in the later stages of WW2. Swift provides us with brilliant descriptions of the landscape and an interesting resume of how this landscape was created by man, one in particular, who kicked off the drainage programme to create agricultural land.

Rather like some detective dramas of recent years in which right at the beginning you are given split second images which reveal part of what happened in the murder of the victim, so too Swift gives us from the outset snapshots of the calamitous events which would happen a few years later or indeed decades later. So the reader does not really have to guess what tragedy is going to befall Tom’s menopausal wife, but this in no way detracts from the narrative. Swift ably pulls the reader through his book: he gets you wanting to know what intervening events and actions occur to bring her to her particular brink.

I would call this a must read book because of the cleverness of the construction of the narrative and the high degree of skill that Swift exhibits as a writer.
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on 4 May 2017
I think this may be the second best novel I've ever read (after Cloud Atlas). Very different, but perhaps equally ambitious. Highly evocative of its setting and thoroughly credible as to characters and plotting - with some 'aha' moments. I'll certainly be reading more Graham Swift!
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on 4 January 2018
Graham Swift opens “Waterland” with a quote from Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, “Ours was the marsh country, close by the river”. Dickens, however, was writing about the North Kent Marshes, whereas Swift’s novel is set in another part of the country, the Fens of East Anglia . The Fens were once a low-lying area of marshland, inhabited by few people other than fishermen and wildfowlers; today they are still low-lying but have mostly been drained and turned into productive agricultural land. It is not a conventionally picturesque area, but its very flatness and featurelessness give it a distinctive local character. Against this background, Swift uses a mixture of real and fictitious places; some of the places mentioned, such as Ely, are real, but others, such as the town of Gildsea (supposedly somewhere between Ely and King’s Lynn) in which much of the action takes place, are the author’s invention.

In some ways the novel falls within the tradition, dating back to George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, of English regional rural fiction. There are allusions to both Eliot and Hardy in the text; the plot has certain links to Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss”, another book set beside a river flowing into the North Sea and in which a flood plays an important part. One of Swift’s characters, Dick Crick, shares a name with one from “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. Just as Swift took inspiration from his predecessors, his book also seems to have inspired Peter Benson’s “The Levels”, another novel from the eighties set in a low-lying part of the country.

In other respects, however, this is far from being a traditional novel. (Indeed, it is less traditional than “The Levels”). It includes such Modernist devices as a non-linear narrative and an unreliable narrator- indeed, a narrator who cheerfully denies not only his own unreliability but also the possibility of narrative which is 100% reliable.

The events of the book (which are not presented in chronological order) can be divided into three categories. The first is the present of its main character Tom Crick, brother of the aforementioned Dick. In this present, set in the late seventies and early eighties, Tom is a middle-aged history teacher at a comprehensive school in Greenwich, South London. The second category is Tom’s own personal history, especially his boyhood and youth in the thirties and forties, when he was growing up as the son of a Fenland lock-keeper, and his courtship of his future wife Mary. The third is the history of Tom’s ancestors which is used to illustrate the wider history of the Fens. Swift pays particular attention to Tom’s mother’s family, the Atkinsons, originally farmers who rose to become a powerful brewing dynasty in the nineteenth century but whose fortunes declined in the twentieth. He also finds room for digressions on such subjects as the natural history of the eel, a creature which plays an important part in his narrative.

The major theme of the novel is the importance of history. The fact that Tom is a history teacher rather than, say, a science or maths teacher is not just an irrelevant detail; it is a major plot point. Parts of the book are taken up with Tom’s lengthy conversations with Price, one of his teenage pupils who cannot see the relevance of the subject to the present day. Price’s doubts are (perhaps surprisingly) shared by the school’s headmaster, a science specialist, who feels that studying the past will do nothing to prepare students for the modern world. Price also fears the End of History- not the End of History in the sense which was later to be popularised by Francis Fukuyama but in the sense of a coming nuclear holocaust which will, quite literally, bring history to an end. (This was a fear which was very real in the seventies and eighties; Price reminded me vividly of some of my own school contemporaries).

The significance of Greenwich as the setting for those parts of the story which take place outside the Fens is that it is the site of the Greenwich Meridian, which can be seen as marking the beginning, rather than the end, of time. This point seems to have been lost on the makers of the otherwise decent film adaptation who moved the Greenwich scenes to Pittsburgh, presumably on the assumption that this would make it more attractive to American audiences.

Tom’s answer to the doubts raised by Price and the headmaster is not that stock cliché about “learning the lessons of history”, meaning that one should study the past in order to avoid the mistakes made by previous generations in the conduct of political, diplomatic and military affairs. It is rather that there can be no better preparation for the modern world than the study of the past, because it is that very past which has brought the modern world into being and which continues to inform it. The philosophy of history presented here is an essentially cyclical, small-c conservative one; the past repeats itself, but any attempt to prevent it from doing so, or to remake it according to one’s own political or philosophical prejudices are doomed to failure. Although history informs the present, it can never be known in all its details and the historian can never be entirely free of personal bias, which is why I said that Tom denies the possibility of reliable narrative.

The plot of the novel is a complex one, including such matters as murder, incest, family rivalry, young love, abortion, mental illness and kidnapping. There is a large cast of characters, spread over several centuries of history. Yet despite this complexity Swift is able to make his novel hang together as a coherent whole, and does so brilliantly. One of the factors holding it together is the use of Tom- an essentially sympathetic figure, despite his unreliability- as narrator, but the main one is the all-pervading presence of the Fens, the “Waterland” of the title, throughout the book, even when the ostensible setting is in Greenwich. “Waterland” is one of the finest British novels of the eighties.
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on 20 April 2017
good characters in a well written story
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on 27 September 2014
Sad. sad story, prosy style of writing but authentic background (living in the area I recognised one of the locations)
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on 4 August 1999
Waterland is an engaging and thoughtful novel which has a nice balance of ideas-led and action/character-led elements within its structure. It is an elegaic look back at the passing of time and the significance of childhood and early adulthood, woven around a story which relates to the past as much as to the present. Having said that, it is never over-florid or over-clever, but has nice clean lines running through the writing style.
I am very impressed by the quality of the writing and the control that Swift shows over the different elements of plot and characterisation, which never faltered or allowed my interest to slip away. Some elements of the style did irritate slightly - the narrator's voice seemed in places a little over-stylised (even if this does suit the narrator's character), but overall this stylisation does actually add texture to the novel, even if in places it leaped out at me.
I have never read anything by Graham Swift before, but certainly intend to after reading this. A definite recommendation!
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on 13 March 2017
Waterland by Graham Swift is a phantastic book - versatile, bouth humorous and ernest. It describes the history of this very special part of England and makes the reader aquainted with some of its present habitants. We also learn quite a lot about the life cycle of the eel, an interesting and also important habitant of the coastal area of North Sea - also many other european coasts.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 September 2008
I've read so many great books of late that I'm constantly surprised that each one betters the next! After reading Richard Yates' superb Revolutionary Road, I knew that was a hard act to follow, but Waterland not only followed it well, but bettered it. It is certainly one of the best British novels that I've ever read, a masterpiece of original narration. It is, of course, the narrative that is the absolute crowning achievement of this: Swift tell's various stories here, all mappped over one another, in varying chapters and interlocking in various ways: we have the contemporary story of Tom Crick, a history teacher being forced into early retirement, who narrates the book in a series of "lectures" to his final class. Then we have the story of Crick's childhood in the Fens, his life with his family and friends and tales of growing up, which include murder, young love and suicide. Crick also narrates to his students the wider story of the Crick family, his ancestors and how they came to their place in the Fens. He sets all of this against the wider backdrop of events in history such as the French Revolution, and the the geographical history of the Fen landscape, and how humans have shaped it over various stages in time. Put like that, it sounds dry, but it really isn't at all. Every strand of it is fascinating, and very lively to read. Swift's style, in Crick's narration, is a masterpiece of wordsmithing, playful, intelligent, witty, pyrotechnic in a subtle, fun way.

It's a seriously excellent book, Waterland. An examination of one man's life and ancestral history, an exploration into the purposes and philosophies inherent in the studying and uses of history itself, and a thrilling mystery. There's more than one mysterious death, here. There are ghosts, incest, elemental raging in the form of floods and fires, kidnapping, and much tragedy. Crick is a fab protagonist, and it's sometimes surprising that the warmest sections of the book are the chapters of his interactions with his classroom of children. I can't recommend this multi-layered, superbly told story highly enough. It's a great literary achievement, and keeps its mysteries to the final page. Exciting, thrilling language, and muchly thought-provoking as to the concept of "history". Buy it soon. Buy it now.
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VINE VOICEon 1 July 2008
When all is said and done, Waterland is a cracking yarn of murder and bonking against a fenland backdrop. But what's special about this macabre literary thriller is the way the story is told. The narrator (a history teacher, Tom Crick, who is also the key protagonist) interleaves the central narrative (set in 1943) with scenes from his troubled present (1983), evocative detours into the eventful history of his family, and philosophical musings on the uses of history. The strange chapters in this final category are reminiscent of Tolstoy's essay-chapters in War and Peace; and, like Tolstoy, Swift somehow gets away with it. In fact, the sinuous structure of the novel only adds to the suspense: just as you think you're approaching a revelation, the narrator goes off on a new tangent. It works brilliantly, because the novel's central mystery (what exactly happened in 1943?) puts a voltage across the entire book, sucking you onwards towards the end.
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